By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
NAIROBI, Aug. 25 -- Sudanese government forces attacked one of Darfur's most volatile and heavily armed camps for displaced people Monday, provoking a gun battle in which as many as 27 civilians were killed and thousands were forced to flee the sprawling settlement, according to reports from aid workers and rebels in the area.
United Nations officials could not confirm the number of deaths. But the aid group Doctors Without Borders said it was treating 65 people who were wounded in the early morning attack, which involved about 80 heavily armed police and military trucks.
Sudanese officials said the raid was intended to disarm rebels living in the camp, but aid workers and activists said the government has been disrupting shipments of humanitarian supplies into the settlement for months and wants to shut it down.
"The government has wanted to close this camp for a long time," said Adam Mudawi, a Sudanese human rights activist who was traveling in Darfur on Monday. "This is another attempt to do that. They see the camp as a threat."
The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Ameerah Haq, said she was "gravely concerned" about the attack and called on the government to ensure the safe evacuation of injured civilians.
The Sudanese government has attacked the Kalma camp at least 10 times before, but Monday's operation appeared to take the highest toll yet on civilians. Situated on the scrubby edges of an important town, Nyala, the camp is home to 80,000 people and is one of the largest in the region, where the government and its allied militias have waged a brutal campaign against rebels and civilians.
Kalma is also one of Darfur's most explosive camps, plagued by internal divisions and quasi-urban problems that reflect the social consequences of a conflict that has dragged on for five years.
The camp is home to people from 29 ethnic groups, including the region's Fur, Zaghawa and Dajo tribes, which for a time were united by their common grievance against the central government. Much like the rest of Darfur, Kalma has become a tribally fragmented war zone, with traditional authority figures, such as sheiks, losing power to young men in rival gangs. The camp is also a fertile recruiting ground for Darfur's rebel groups, which have splintered into dozens of factions.
According to a January report by the human rights group Amnesty International, most residents, including children, have some sort of weapon in Kalma, where a revolver can be purchased for as little as $25. Trucks belonging to aid groups have been hijacked by armed groups in the camp. Fighting has often kept aid workers away for weeks.
Analysts and rebel leaders accuse the government of fostering the divisions that have turned Darfurians against one another. Monday's attack, they said, was simply a more overt attempt by the government to divide and disperse a population that might otherwise pose a threat.
"They want to create chaos," said Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, a commander with the United Revolutionary Force Front, a rebel faction. "This is a strategy they are pursuing because of their own gloomy political future."
He was referring to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's recent indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in masterminding the military campaign in Darfur, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced 2.5 million, or about half of the region's population.